“It’s not the fact that we’re a group of drug users that makes us public enemy number 1. The private sector, the cannabis industry, is providing more funding and more resources than our own municipal government. We’re not the enemy because we’re growing weed, we’re the enemy because we’re right about what needs to happen as far as harm reduction. And we’re providing an adequate response”. – Sapha Habibi
New Leaf Outreach is a peer-run drug user organization local to Nanaimo B.C. and operated by people who use or are in recovery from using drugs. The organization’s unique approach to using lived in experience to provide users with harm reduction, holistic recovery and even job opportunities.
“Our unique approach to recovery from opioid and other substance use is evidence-based and inclusive of cannabis and other natural alternatives”.
– New Leaf Outreach
The project started when Kevin Donaghy (KD) and Sapha Habibi (SH) met in rehab and decided something needed to be done about the drug and overdose crisis affecting their community. The website fills in better detail, the mantra and logistics of the organization. The most interesting thing is the group has taken it upon themselves to respond directly and independently to Nanaimo’s situation.
Rochele Strano (RS) New Leaf’s Coordinator oversees 15 volunteers that go out into the city to offer clean supplies but also clean up used needles and other supplies. She also works NLO’s pop up tent consumption sites appearing at different locations and supplying a safe place off the street for people to use.
Donaghy and Habibi are so busy that I interview them each separately in the only spare moment they have in a day; while eating.
I am also introduced to Anne Marie Fisher (AMF), a cannabis writer and educator under Cannawrite and another cannabis educator Sara Nurse Lovegrove (SNL). Both women volunteer with New Leaf and are part of the Sangha Collective which works with a number of cannabis businesses and non-profits providing coaching and a variety of services to help them enter the cannabis industry.
It’s definitely interesting to see how NLO sheds light on the cannabis stigma…
SH: People view drugs as drugs, whether cannabis or methamphetamine. I really dislike calling marijuana a drug. It’s medicine.
SNL: We have been working with people within the NLO group for a long time in this regard, taking a holistic look at recovery and addiction with scientific and evidence-based support as well as the therapeutic side of cannabis.
RS: Cannabis can be a better option than other prescriptions. I have a friend suffering from cancer who was given CBD which helped her quit morphine. When people are addicted to opiates and they’re put in rehab and given more opiates it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Where did the DIY agency to start New Leaf come from?
SH: This is nothing new. Supervised, unsanctioned pop-up sites have been around on the island and in Vancouver as far back as the ’80s. What option did we have? Our friends are dying from overdoses. The only logical thing to do is to create a safe place for people to use.
On May 4, 2017, The Good Samaritan Act was passed in Canada, providing “some legal protection for individuals who seek emergency help during an overdose”. Harm Reduction is an important part of this strategy with prevention, treatment and enforcement. Before this law was passed it was illegal to help someone without consent. And then fentanyl joined the party.
Talk a sec about NLO’s relationship with the city of Nanaimo.
SH: The city is great with us. The police are also cool. Once upon a time, they asked us to leave. Now they come by to check and make sure everything is okay. With 100-180 people coming through a day, that’s more than anybody else sees. We save the city a lot of time and money.
What do you want to say that hasn’t been said? What’s missing?
SH: Harm reduction has been misrepresented and poorly presented in the media. If they took the time to show positive impacts that harm reduction actually has on communities instead of bitching about costs, they’d see that HR actually saves much more in the end.
AMF: Despite being legal and widely used medically, cannabis is still very highly stigmatized. People still recognize cannabis as a drug and not as a tool. It is a substance people use therapeutically, recreationally, medically and it acts as a tool we can use to reduce harm. People are being given drugs that are killing them and we’d rather them use a plant that could potentially save their lives.
KD: It’s about flipping the idea of recovery and the 12 Steps Program on its head. Recovery is an individual process. A cannabis substitution program could take into account the individual’s needs when prescribing to get off opioids or stave off withdrawals between fixes. It would aim to recognize the individual and that people deserve to live well and I think cannabis helps people live well.
SNL: There are big plans currently in the works that cannabis is at the center of facilitating; big issues like recovery housing and mental health.
What impact do you hope to have locally and then internationally?
AMF: I think education starts at the core of it, to help people understand what’s possible with cannabis. To help people better understand the mindset of a drug user and to understand the power cannabinoids have, their healing properties, what they can do.
KD: The basis is to reduce the number of fatal overdoses and addressing that crisis. People who use drugs have never been included in the deliberations of the policies that impact them. It’s people who use drugs who know what people who use drugs need.